IndyCar legend Mario Andretti navigates personal losses, loneliness of pandemic

IndyCar Mario Andretti pandemic
Joe Skibinski/IndyCar
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Mario Andretti is loneliest at night, when he’s home alone in his sprawling Pennsylvania mansion, and there’s no one to talk to but Gonzo, his 34-year-old Amazon parrot.

One of the greatest racers of all time is struggling, not unlike so many people around the world during this pandemic that has devastated families and claimed more than 3 million lives.

His sister and his wife died months apart in 2018 and maybe those back-to-back losses, and the hardness toward death that is inherent to racers accustomed to losing fellow competitors, should have prepared Andretti for 2020.

But the blows were just too deep. Just too cruel.

His beloved nephew John Andretti lost his three-year fight with colon cancer in early 2020, a death that shook the family. It came about six weeks before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, and Andretti suddenly had nowhere to go.

There is no bigger star at a racetrack than Mario Andretti, the only driver to win the Formula One championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. And when all the racetracks were closed, his world became very, very small.

“Before COVID, at least he was getting out, doing stuff he liked, and then he lost all his endorsements, and he was just sitting at home and he’s there by himself,” said Michael Andretti, gesturing across the Andretti Autosport hospitality center to his 81-year-old masked father mingling with guests at IndyCar’s season-opening race. “He needs something to do at the racetrack to feel alive.”

The call Andretti never prepared himself for came Dec. 30 when his twin brother died of complications from COVID-19. Both Aldo Andretti and his wife had contracted the virus; she recovered and went home, but he remained hospitalized, refused to be placed on a ventilator and died.

“Aldo Andretti, my loving twin brother, my partner in crime and my faithful best friend every day of my life was called to heaven last night. Half of me went with him. There is no eloquence. I’m shaken to my core,” Andretti tweeted.

Andretti said he and grandson Marco had traveled together to Indianapolis on Dec. 7 for physicals and visited with Aldo, found him “jovial, same as ever,” and 23 days later, he was dead.

In a nearly hourlong interview at Barber Motorsports Park with The Associated Press, Andretti talked about emigrating from Italy to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in 1955 on a Thursday night. They were World War II children who had grown up sharing a bed, whispering in the dark about Ferrari, Nino Farina and Alberto Ascari, wondering if the Andretti boys might someday have their own chance to be famous race car drivers.

Four days after arriving in the U.S. they saw the bright lights of Nazareth Speedway, where a modified race was being held. The brothers were 17, four years away from the legal age to compete, without a car but “driven by a passion and a love, and as a kid you are allowed to have your dreams,” he said.

By 1959, they had one car built for the two of them to share. Aldo won the coin flip and the right to enter the first race. He won.

The Andretti boys raced all year without telling their father. In the season finale, Aldo flipped his car and spent four days in a coma. A decade later, Mario won the only Indy 500 for motorsports’ most famed family; three months later, at a dirt track in Iowa, Aldo was hospitalized following a horrific accident.

Mario boarded Andy Granatelli’s private plane, flew to Iowa and told Aldo that Aldo was never racing again. They’d buy a tire shop, and Aldo would become a businessman and leave the racing to the rest of the Andretti family.

“I told him right there in the hospital, `There is a black cloud over your head and if something is in front of you, you will hit it,’ ” Andretti said. “But he couldn’t just walk away from racing. He needed goals, and he didn’t want a handout. So he had to have something to do.”

It’s no different for Andretti himself, who refuses to come to the racetrack just to hang out. His son Michael runs Andretti Autosport and grandson Marco decided in January he doesn’t want to run full-time IndyCar anymore.

When IndyCar resumed last June, Andretti still had something to do at the track as the driver of the popular “Fastest Seat in Sports” program that pairs him with a celebrity, dignitary or influencer in a two-seater that leads the field to green before each race. The program had been sponsored by Honda but ended in an embarrassing fiasco at last season’s finale when a participant intimated to Andretti that it was his final weekend as driver.

In reality, Honda was ending its sponsorship of the program that also includes prerace rides for VIPs. Michael Andretti and his sales team spent months seeking a company willing to continue the two-seater program, and Ruoff Mortgage debuted at Barber as the new sponsor.

Ruoff Mortgage has been an Andretti Autosport partner in the past, debuting in 2017 on Takuma Sato’s Indianapolis 500 winning car.

“I made a joke that I was the sponsor for my dad,” Michael Andretti said.

It’s not clear if Andretti Autosport moved money from its budget to the two-seater program, but Michael Andretti said his father “won’t come here unless he has a reason to come here, and I know that I really tried hard to find something for that program.”

Mario Andretti at Carb Day for the 2020 Indianapolis 500 (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

Mario Andretti went directly from Barber to St. Petersburg, Florida, site of this weekend’s race. His relationship with Michael never has been closer, he said. His other son, Jeff, lives in Arizona. At home in Pennsylvania, his nearby daughter, Barbie, constantly ensures he’s got enough to eat. Marco lives next door and sees him most often, and in this new world of Zoom, not a day goes by without an interview request.

At night, it’s just him and Gonzo. He said he talks to the bird, and the bird talks back. He arrived in Nazareth 66 years ago, met wife Dee Ann there, loves his home and has no plans to leave.

“You know, I am lonely and after Aldo, I asked myself, where I am supposed to be? What I am supposed to do?” Andretti said. “Am I supposed to put my chin in my socks? Or am I supposed to look at the life that I have left, the kids, the family?

“This is my life. I cannot imagine any other life, being satisfied with any other life that did not include racing. I never had any Plan B. So on I go.”

Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.